GOOD NEWS FOR JOHN McCAIN

After watching tonight’s debate, I have all kinds of good news for my friend John McCain (no, not “that one” – the other one): First, the Treasury Secretary just got the authority you want to give him to renegotiate mortgages – it was included in a bill signed last week you may have heard about – though that was after you un-suspended your campaign.

Second, if you’re all about your collaboration with Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman, the bills we used to call McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Lieberman are still out there waiting to be passed, and I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt those bills if you went back to supporting them again (though judging by the bailout bill, who knows).

Third, if you’re really against cutting taxes for rich people, there’s a man running for president right now who wants to cut taxes for the middle class instead – and it looks like he’s going to win!

Can’t say anything tonight changed that. Neither of these guys is a particularly good debater, and despite the hype, neither man took very good advantage of the town hall format tonight. But Obama was crisper and sharper tonight than either of them had been in the last debate, and he came off more comfortable and compelling and denied McCain another opportunity to change the race.

MIKE’S MATH

Michael Tomasky chooses a very strange approach to claim some quantitative heft for his otherwise well-stated case that the Democratic Senate Caucus will continue to represent a range of views whether it includes Joe Lieberman or not:

You start with their National Journal numbers — specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues..So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten? Try four…

If this sounds like a meaningful measure of how liberal Senate Democrats are, or how broad the range of ideologies among Senate Dems are, then go back and read that second sentence again. According to Tomasky’s description, the National Journal rating (yes, that’s the same one that gave us that silly talking point about Kerry and Edwards being the 1st and 4th most liberal senators) is a stanine (remember standardized tests?). It measures how liberal a given senator is as compared to the other 99 senators (the system must be more complicated than Tomasky’s describing it, because it’s physically impossible for Ted Kennedy to be more liberal than exactly 96.7 other Senators). Which (lest our friends at the National Journal take offense) may be useful to know in evaluating a particular Senator, or even a few of them. But in terms of looking at a 44-member caucus, it’s less useful. It could tell us (assuming we accept the rubric for the calculations, which Tomasky goes on to say he doesn’t) whether there’s any overlap along the scale between the two caucuses – that is, whether Lincoln Chafee is more or less liberal than Ben Nelson. It could even tell us something about how the senators are spaced along the ideological spectrum they represent.

But knowing that the Democrats have four Senators in the 90s and “a passel of B’s”, while the Republicans have

have just three 90’s: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80’s

sheds precious little light on the question Tomasky is trying to answer: How ideologically diverse is the Democratic caucus (rather than how the Democratic Senators are spaced along the ideological territory of the caucus). Maybe there’s an argument to be made about how the ideological breadth of one caucus skews the distribution of the other caucus along the spectrum of all 100 senators, but I don’t think Tomasky is making it.

His argument seems to be that if the Senate Democratic Caucus were really full of Ted Kennedys, you’d see more of its members scoring in the 90s. But if the Caucus were full of Ted Kennedys, it would become that much harder for Ted Kennedy to eke out a 90. Because, as they say, it’s all relative.

If you took a snapshot of the current distribution of Senators along the National Journal scale, on the other hand, you would have a tough time (unless you were, say, Jacob Hacker) telling from looking at it whether you were looking at the Senate circa 2006, 1936, or 1846 – because changes in the ideological breadth of the Senate would only translate indirectly into changes in the spacing of the Senators along that breadth. And you’d be no closer to figuring out how the ideologies represented by the folks in the Senate compare to the breakdown of America, or even Connecticut.

That is, if I understand the National Journal ratings correctly. If I’m confused, then forget it. If not, then Tomasky’s parallel universe of Democrats who all score in the 90’s bares a strong resemblance to Garrison Keillor’s apocryphal town in which “all of the children are above average.”

BEYOND BUSH AND TANCREDO

Catching up on the immigration debate that broke out amongst some of my co-bloggers over at Campus Progress while I was out of the country, I think it exemplifies an unfortunate trend in the contemporary debate: conflating the questions of how immigration should be regulated and of what rights immigrants should have in this country. Every issue has some pundit out there convinced that there are not two sides but three or seven or nineteen, but the immigration question is actually one where there are three camps – counting not the number of potentially coherent ideologies out there but the number of discrete large-scale positions people are visibly lobbying for – which can’t be placed along along a single spectrum without losing a good deal of meaning.

The position which has gotten the most colorful press coverage recently is the one advocated by Tom Tancredo (R-CA) and the Minutemen vigilantes who’ve taken it on themselves the patrol the border and chase down people who look to them like immigrants. Tancredo wants to cut immigration to this country (drastically) by building a wall and wants to curtail the rights of immigrants here (drastically) by denying their children birthright citizenship. It’s a position which resonates with a significant swath of the Republican base, as well as some traditionally Democratic-voting folks. It’s the position of the National Review. Shamefully, it used to be (roughly) the official position of the AFL-CIO (arguably that position would have fit better in a fourth quadrant – fewer immigrants but more rights for them – which I’ll leave out here because it lacks many advocates).

The position which has unfortunately been the primary alternative portrayed in the media is the cluster of policy proposals represented by George W. Bush: more legal immigration but fewer rights for immigrants. That would be the consequence of the crypto-bracero program he offered two years ago, under which undocumented immigrants are invited to come out of the shadows and into the trust of their employers, who can sponsor them for as long as they see fit but are given no reason not to have them deported if they do something the boss doesn’t like. This is the position of the Wall Street Journal and the Cato foundation and the business elites they’re looking out for.

There’s a progressive position in this debate, but it isn’t either of these. It’s the position for which immigrants, advocates, and allies rode from around the country to Flushing Meadows Park for two years ago: open our country to more legal immigration and protect the rights of everyone who lives here. It’s the position of the national labor movement, the NAACP, and the National Council of La Raza, and it’s the one reflected in the principles of the New American Opportunity Campaign: offer a path to citizenship, reunite families, protect civil liberties, and safeguard the right to organize and bargain collectively for everyone who lives and works here. That’s the goal towards which the legislation offered by senators Kennedy and McCain is a crucial step.

Conservatives reap the benefits from any debate which pits low-income workers against each other based on race or gender or citizenship – even when such a debate makes cracks in their electoral coalition in the short term. Building a progressive movement in this country depends on bringing together working people across such divisions to confront shared challenges and opponents with common cause. It’s a task which ostensibly progressive organizations too often have failed – to their own detriment. A two-tiered workforce is bad for workers, and it’s bad for America. But the right answer to that challenge, on the immigration question as on the race question and the gender question, is to welcome new workers and ensure that they have the same rights as old ones, so that they can organize and bargain together to raise their standard of living. Pushing marginalized workers out of the workforce was the wrong position then, and it’s the wrong one now. It consigns more men and women to die crossing the border, and it endangers our security by perpetuating a system in which millions of people needlessly live outside of the law. And it denies the historical promise and dynamism of this country.

The Times makes a poor attempt to contrast Kennedy’s and Obama’s speeches last night:

If Mr. Obama reached for the middle with his promise of a new kind of politics under Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kennedy spoke to the most fervent and frustrated Democratic voters, weary after four years out of power.

This unfortunate sentence echoes some of the false synechdoches I find most frustrating in the way we discuss politics in this country: Eliding a positive vision with moderation and a negative critique with extremism, partisanship with ideology, open-mindedness with moderation, and the disengaged or disenfranchised with the moderates. Kennedy’s speech touted the historic accomplishments of the Democratic party and condemned the crimes of the Bush Administration. Obama’s drew on his narrative and those of his neighbors to craft a vision of the urgency and potential of democratic politics. There’s no cause to identify the former as a more radical project than the latter, and strong ground on which to argue the reverse.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, given the tremendous success of Obama’s speech and the lack of Black leaders with popularity and credibility articulating the right’s view of the path to Black uplift, that some conservatives would try to claim the speech as their own. Witness Roger Clegg’s flat attempt over at the National Review‘s Corner:

Barack Obama gave a fine speech, but it was not a speech that reflects the current Democratic Party. It celebrated America as “a magical place”; it did not bemoan our racism and imperialism. It professed that this black man “owe[d] a debt to those who came before” him; it did not call for reparations. It spoke of an “awesome God”; it did not banish Him from public discourse. It admitted that black parents, and black culture, need to change the way black children are raised; it did not blame or even mention racism. It quoted “E pluribus unum” and translated it correctly as “Out of many, one”; it did not misquote it, as Al Gore infamously did, as “Many out of one.” Most of all, the speech celebrated one America, “one people,” and rejected the notion of a black America, a white America, a Latino America, and an Asian America–a notion completely foreign to the multiculturalism that now dominates the Democratic Party.

Give me a break. It’s always been the work of the left to recognize and reclaim what is great about the reality of this country, what is greater about its ideals, and what broken promises maintain the gap between the reality and the ideal. Hence the appropriateness of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” as a centerpiece of the Kerry campaign: The poem calls out and decries the myriad ways in which America falls short of the American ideal, makes appeal to an inherited vision of America, and yet recognizes that the dream of a just America past is itself a construct, that America never was fully America, but rather might just someday be through a struggle which begins with recognizing what is broken. As Obama says:

I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores.

It’s only by falling back on the tired and baseless image of Democrats as visceral America-haters that Clegg can pretend that Obama’s patriotism leaves him out of place at the Convention. And it’s only by falling back on a similarly tired and baseless image of Democrats as deniers of the agency of the disenfranchised that Clegg can label his claim of individual and collective responsibility as conservative. While I and others might question Obama’s choice to compare waste in the Pentagon and welfare budgets, or his implication that stigma is attached to Black success based simply on choices made by Blacks, they show up in the speech to clarify his central assertion about the urgency of collective action. The idea that human beings bear no agency or responsibility is not a Democratic one, and it’s not a leftist one either, unless Rush Limbaugh is granted the authority to define the left. What is a leftist idea – and sometimes a Democratic one – is that human responsibility extends beyond the individual, or the family, to a broader community, that problems faced by collectives can be faced and defeated through collective action, that government in its purest and most justified form represents a vehichle for the achievement of individual strivings and collective aspirations through collective solutions – and that when a community, and its government, abdicate its responsibility to those wronged, they erodes, not protect, the conditions for the flourishing of the human liberty to which they are each individually born. As Obama says:

If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief, it is that fundamental belief, I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family. E pluribus unum.

And to argue that Obama’s celebration of that unum, and his assertion that there’s “one America,” make him an anti-multiculturalist depends on an assumption that that one America is defined on the terms of its white constituents. Clegg would be right to argue that Obama’s no separatist – but neither are the Democrats, and neither are many on the left either. But the narrative he tells of his Kenyan and Kansan parents isn’t a melting pot that forges homogeneity either – he even uses the d-word which has become anathema in National Review circles:

My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or ”blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential…I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

I’d like to know more about Obama’s family and his struggle for and forging of a personal identity. Fortunately, he’s written a meditation on the topic, “Dreams of My Father,” which I hope to read soon. Maybe Roger Clegg should too.

The gang at the Prospect’s convention blog (inter alia) have been carping about (inter alia) the Convention’s music selections for each speaker. None of the ones they mentioned, though, irk me so much as the pairing of the Beatles’ “Revolution” with Howard Dean. Come on, guys. It’s a song about being afraid of revolution. And certainly, for better or worse, Howard Dean was never quite as revolutionary as his strongest backers or critics made him out to be. But it seems safe to assume that the song was chosen to suggest that he’s an insurgent. And to do that was a counter-insurgent song is an insult to the audience’s intelligence nearly on par with Reagan’s citing “Born in the USA” as an articulation of his brand of patriotism. Anyone who’d like to try to convince me that there’s a subtle point being made about the revolutionary danger posed by Bush and feared by Dean, or the tension between Dean’s conservative record and his more radical rhetoric, or the fear of the Democratic establishment towards Dean, is welcome to try. I wouldn’t suggest it though.

Otherwise, I’d say Dean’s was a solid speech, even if some of the lines make less of an impact for those of us who’ve heard them from him several times before. The same goes for Ted Kennedy, on both counts. Of course, there can only be one Barack Obama.